TELEVISION / Losing your bearings in Borges: Tom Sutcliffe on Alex Cox's Borges and Anthony Holden's Las Vegas

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The Independent Culture
'DEATH and the Compass', Alex Cox's weird contribution to the ScreenPlay season (BBC 2) was filmed in Mexico. But it wasn't Mexico that lent its spirit to this knowing genre piece, nor Borges' Argentina. It was Brazil - not the actual country, you understand, but the state of mind summoned up by Terry Gilliam's film.

It sometimes looked as if Cox had shot on the same sets, as his Steadicam snaked through the gloomy, labyrinthine interior of police HQ. Surgeons conducted autopsies in the 19th-century entrance hall while whores bickered and struggling low-lifes were frog- marched up the staircases. A refined female voice on the tannoy reminded detectives that 'the torture section must be kept tidy'.

Through this murky phantasmagoria strides Lonnrot, a detective charismatic enough to persuade muggers into rehab by pure force of personality. When a rabbinical scholar is murdered in his hotel room Lonnrot ignores the obvious solution because it is dull, stifling his superior's protests with the reminder that 'reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting - a hypothesis may not'. This connoisseurship proves his undoing - the coded sequence of deaths is not a lock which his cunning will open, but a trap which it will shut; he is lured to the site of the last murder, only to find that it is his own.

Just as Borges was playing with a literary genre, so Cox had fun with its cinema equivalent, mixing the cliches of film noir with the arcana of Borges' story. How many times have you heard a knowing 'Let's just say . . . ' or, as a suspect turns to leave, a dangerously casual 'By the way . . .' - how many times have you heard them followed up with ' . . . I'm looking for a more rabbinical explanation' and ' . . . what is the ninth attribute of God?'

It wasn't all as sophisticated as it might have been. Heavy dubbing gave many scenes that stilted, artificial air so familiar from late- night Continental movies, and some of the acting was simply too gauche to deserve dubbing. But there were enough pleasures in the details to keep you watching - as in the wry up-date of the classic clock-on-the-wall shot, when a startling flurry from an electronic date indicator interrupted a long pause to tell you that it had just turned midnight.

Anthony Holden on Poker (BBC 2) was billed as an 'introduction to the game', which you could take to mean a didactic series was to follow, a notion supported by the slightly economical production values. Unfortunately, turning to next week's Radio Times, you find that's it. It's a pity, because Holden's opening bid was brilliant. 'Out of the blue', he said, over footage of the last Poker World Championship, 'comes one of the most celebrated hands in the games' recent history, showing poker at its most thrilling - even if it's the first hand you've ever watched.' Turn off if you dare. Half an hour later, after talk of railbirds, chip tricks, 'tells', and Hans 'Tuna' Lund, the pulse was racing and you were ready for action. But if Anthony Holden learnt anything about the game during his year as a professional player, it seems he doesn't mean to pass it on. It was a bit like settling down for a seven-course meal and having the waiter bring you the bill after the appetiser.

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